Deranged. Dysfunctional. Unwell. The words tumble out of my mouth like some haiku for the miserable as I sit in the Connecticut office of Andrew Tucker, Ph.D., for the first time. A clinical psychologist specializing in sleep disorders, Tucker knows an insomniac when he sees one: I am ashen and shadowed, like a real-life manifestation of an Egon Schiele painting.
I had problems long before online shopping and Succession marathons conspired to compromise my precious evening unwind time. But lately, due to ceaseless travel and an uptick in anxiety, shut-eye all but eluded me. I had rotated through a rogue’s pharmacy of antihistamines, cannabinoids, sleeping pills, and teas; I even tried meditation apps, desperate to be knocked out for the night. Nothing worked. “This is science,” Tucker reassures me. “No sleep issue is insurmountable, including yours.”
We, as a society, have reached peak exhaustion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in three Americans suffers from sleep deprivation, making it a veritable public-health crisis. Declining work productivity and traffic accidents are all on the rise, while studies link inadequate sleep to Alzheimer’s, hypertension, depression, and diabetes. Along with good eating habits and exercise, sleep is critical for the optimal functioning of our biological systems, says Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg, M.D., the medical director of sleep medicine at Millennium Physician Group in Fort Myers, Florida. “It is one of the three pillars of health, and the ultimate necessity,” she continues. But the lack of it and longing for it have made it the ultimate luxury in our maxed-out culture. “Sleep is the most valued commodity there is, and you can’t buy it,” confirms Sara Ivanhoe, M.A., the director of yoga programs at the University of Southern California, where she teaches a course on sleep. “If it evades you, it is impossible to enjoy almost anything.”
Veronica Lee was so familiar with this affliction, she left the financial tech company she was building in Silicon Valley to create a new one devoted to alleviating it. Combining naturopathy, Chinese herbs, vitamins, and algorithms, Lee’s start-up, Remrise, aims to match you with a personalized supplement regimen via an online questionnaire. “I wanted to reinvent the idea of a sleep aid,” the 37-year-old says of the platform, which was incubated at Atomic start-up studio and has already secured $8.2 million in funding. Other innovators are hoping to capitalize on the movement toward better sleep by rethinking what a healthy night’s slumber looks like, no NyQuil or Ambien required. The company Eight Sleep, beloved by athletes and trainers, has been bankrolled to the tune of $65 million, helping to popularize its temperature-controlled mattress. Embedded with sensors that track your biometrics, the system was designed in the pursuit of what cofounder Alexandra Zatarain, 30, calls “sleep fitness.” Innumerable hotels—including Equinox’s new lifestyle concept—have caught on to the idea, offering sleep coaching as part of their wellness menus. Meanwhile, a new weighted blanket from the Hungarian brand Corala is filled with glass beads that purport to swaddle you to sleep; I recently tried it while sheathed in an oversize silk sleep mask from the Danish brand The Beauty Sleeper and an Italian cotton nightgown from Emilia Wickstead’s new sleepwear collection.
But my problem isn’t comfort. It is waking up at 2 a.m., ruminating on a messy manuscript or the latest gun tragedy. No new-to-market sleep aid has been able to part the subsequent daytime fog in my brain—and that’s not surprising, says Suzanne Bertisch, M.D., clinical director of behavioral sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “For people with real sleep disorders, I generally recommend sticking to evidence-based behavioral treatments because they tap into your basic biology and retrain your brain to sleep,” Bertisch explains.
One of those treatments is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a protocol designed to alter detrimental thoughts and behaviors. After conducting a psychological, genetic, and medical history to identify the causes of my insomnia, Tucker asks me to keep a sleep log, indicating when I have caffeine or alcohol, when I lie down and wake up, and what substances I am using to force the issue. The graphs look like the scribbles of a madwoman, but they reveal something interesting: Tucker points out that, just like the rest of our body, the part of our brain that controls the circadian rhythm—our natural clock that generates our sleep-wake cycle—begins to deteriorate as we age, and mine has weakened considerably. With CBT, I could recondition it with targeted strengthening strategies. “It’s like training for a 5K,” he says.
“Sleep is the most valued commodity there is, and you can’t buy it. If it evades you, it is impossible to enjoy almost anything”
After discovering that the Wellbutrin I take for mild depression can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, I wean myself off the pills under Tucker’s supervision. Then I launch into “sleep-restriction therapy,” during which I implement a 12 a.m. bedtime and a 6:30 a.m. wake-up in an effort to promote shorter, deeper, and richer sleep. Three hours before midnight, I also take three milligrams of melatonin, the body’s natural hormone that makes us drowsy, and incorporate 30 minutes of direct daylight in the morning to stop its natural release. No more THC drops or nibbles on Benadryl and, alas, no alcohol, not even a glass of wine with dinner. (Along with its sedating effects, alcohol may cause sleep disturbances when it metabolizes.) And while I fear the addictive qualities of sleeping pills, Tucker assures me that their careful, periodic use could still be an important tool for me to manage jet lag.
It is strange to live in a world where every day, we hear about the importance of healthy sleep, yet where more distractions are thrown our way to keep us from getting it. But four months after I’ve been sticking to a plan designed to mitigate my own insomnia-causing triggers, my bed is no longer a torture chamber where I spend untold hours in despair. “Your bed should be for two things: sleep and sex,” jokes Abbasi-Feinberg—and for waking up refreshed, preferably in an impossibly soft Italian-cotton nightgown.